Please don’t be fooled by the surprisingly firm assertion made in this post’s title. I prefer to pose it as a question because I do not actually know for certain. You see, I decided to stay out of the debates over the use of “trigger warnings” in college classrooms since first reading an argument against them. I know too little about the experience of being emotionally or physiologically triggered, as my training is not in psychology and I have very little personal experience with sexual violence; so, I have remained silent on the issue, assuming it was a fad to discuss it in academic circles that would ultimately pass. (Aren’t there more pressing matters, like access to college, diversity, sexual violence on campuses, making curricula accessible, etc.?)
Trigger Warnings Are A Threat To Academic Freedom???
I am making an exception to my self-imposed silence about trigger warnings today. Alice Dreger’s Aeon essay, “Without tenure, professors become terrified sheep,” caught my eye, with an obvious, yet bold claim in her title, and an associated picture of a University of Wisconsin building — subtly pointing to state’s decision to do away with tenure in the traditional sense. Dreger makes important points, most significantly that academic freedom goes out the door when faculty lose job security — something of urgent concern, considering the adjunctification of the academy. But, she mentioned examples of threats to academic freedom that not only surprised me, but also greatly concern me:
Meanwhile, on the left, identity-politics activists are using devices like ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’ to shut down speech they believe to be offensive and dangerous. In my campus visits around the US – aimed at emboldening the students, faculty, and administrators to push for academic freedom – I’ve been told time and time again about staff being reported by left-leaning students for teaching ‘uncomfortable’ ideas that have been taught for generations.
For example, one faculty member at a prestigious liberal arts college told me about a colleague who was reported for teaching the ancient Greek tale Leda and the Swan. The alleged discriminatory offence? Not first warning students that the story includes a symbolic rape. Others at public universities described being reported for stumbling over students’ preferred pronouns. Some historic women’s colleges have given up trying to produce The Vagina Monologues because of complaints that the 1996 play doesn’t reflect the breadth of transgender experiences. (It doesn’t; it wasn’t written for that purpose any more than The Federalist Papers were.)
I want to note that these examples seem out of line with Dreger’s argument about tenure. Are tenured faculty freed from the pressures to create safe spaces for oppressed students? From offering preemptive warnings that some content covered in their courses may be triggering? Are tenured faculty no longer expected to make efforts to include transgender students in campus events, as well as their classes and curricula?
One could infer from these comments that Dreger’s version of tenure grants faculty freedom to practice discrimination, or at least to ignore oppressed student groups’ demands for equality, inclusion, and safety. And, tenured faculty can stop being concerned about the well-being of survivors of sexual violence — as though there was an institutional mandate to care while they were pre-tenure. It’s problematic to conceptualize these examples as mere politics (i.e., left-leaning versus right-leaning students); survivors demanding a safe classroom environment and trans students demanding inclusion is not the stuff of political games — it’s about their survival and well-being.
Faculty Are Clueless
I will grant Dreger and others who have taken the time to publicly oppose trigger warnings this. The responsibility falls on faculty to appropriately warn students of potentially triggering material. And, the responsibility to articulate the need for such a warning falls on students. Thus, I understand the concern about how far we should go to offer trigger warnings.
On a few occasions, I have had a student approach me to express concern about material that was triggering for them. “Will the [research methods] textbook keep using examples of research on domestic violence?” “Can we avoid talking about suicide today? Today is the anniversary of my friend’s death.” Initially, I was annoyed by these students’ comments, as they came just moments before class started; textbooks were already assigned, lectures were already prepped. Besides the last-minute nature of the concerns, I wondered whether the students’ triggered reactions were enough to change my classes to accommodate them; indeed, I felt the implied or actual requests that I change my classes in a major way were imposing, if not inappropriate. What I offered instead was that the students could continue to advocate for themselves — they could drop the class (since there were no alternative textbooks, and coming up with alternative material seemed too demanding of my time) or skip the classes they felt would be triggering.
In hindsight, offering for them to just leave feels insensitive; but, my limited teaching training left me with no other appropriate courses of action. Rather than leaving it to faculty to decide whether and how to use trigger warnings, an ideal approach would be to teach graduate students how to handle these issues. To me, accommodating the needs of survivors of sexual violence and other traumatic events fits within the broader initiative to make classrooms accessible. Colleges and universities might expand their sexual violence prevention work and disability services to include resources for survivors to avoid or at least cope with triggering classroom material. These offices, as well as teaching and learning centers and professional development centers could offer training for faculty to support survivors of sexual violence, and other students who have experienced trauma. That is, one way to ease the burden on students to speak up for themselves (risking some ill-informed faculty member of dismissing them as overly sensitive), and the burden on faculty to devise proper warnings for triggering material, is to make it an institutional effort. (And, by that, I don’t mean an institution-wide ban on trigger warnings, and a letter to students to toughen up.)
Opposition To Trigger Warnings Is A Defense Of The Status Quo
But, I want to return to my title’s claim — that the opposition to trigger warnings reinforces the status quo in higher education. I believe the rise of trigger warnings reflects success of survivors and their allies to call attention to the ways in which college classrooms may be a part of the problem of rape culture in higher education. And, like Dreger’s dismissal of students’ demand for the use of correct pronouns, those in the mainstream — or specifically members of the dominant group — often react to change with anger. They dismiss the demands for change by saying things like Vagina Monologues need not include transgender people (not even trans women) because “it wasn’t written for that purpose any more than The Federalist Papers were.” In this case, trans people have no right to demand inclusion because it has always been that way. They resort to mocking the group demanding change — how silly these trans people, demanding that we use pronouns in an inclusive way. I suspect that is what we are seeing in the opposition against trigger warnings; there is a knee-jerk reaction to defend the way it has always been, to ignore that a sizeable minority of students have been raped, sexually assaulted, sexually harassed, or experienced other forms of violence. Generation after generation of students has been reading [X “classic” text that includes triggering material], so why should we eliminate it or assign it with a warning now?
I would argue that the opposition to trigger warnings is part of a larger trend of belittling college students, particularly their political efforts. The flip side of concerns about entitlement and helicopter parenting is critiques of students who challenge the status quo on their campuses. We now have the term “crybullies,” dismissing contemporary forms of protest as a mere demand to protect one’s feelings and presumably fragile ego. The following cartoon perfectly captures this patronizing sentiment:
The supposed consequences of these “crybullies” — that logic, reason, actual education, and academic freedom go up in flames — is captured in this more damning cartoon:
Wow. The underlying logic is that women, queer students, students of color, and others who have demanded safety, protection, and inclusion are the equivalent of overly sensitive babies — pampered babies, if you see the noticeably tan child holding the social justice sword and “racist!!” rattle. Clearly, these groups have no right to challenge the status quo because, well, these must not be serious problems.
Some of this strikes me as the tired “us vs. them” generational divide — in this case, a war waged against millennials by… well… every other generation. These babies are pierced, tattooed, and have colored hair. Eventually they’ll grow up and have real concerns! Maybe I haven’t resorted to this kind of finger wagging because, by some accounts, I am a millennial myself. I’m pierced and tattooed and have carried the sword of social justice and demanded safe spaces and leaned into my “special slowflake” identity. But, I haven’t chosen a side because it’s played out. The hippies pictured in the first cartoon were criticized in their day, too. Their political demands were mocked and criticized by older generations. Suddenly, their demands for peace and love seem reasonable compared to demands for safety from violence and triggering material, and for inclusion and equal treatment.
Can we pause for a moment on the trigger warning debates? Even well-intentioned liberal professors who have taken issue with these warnings are merely echoing the larger conservative opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement, efforts to identify and eliminate microaggressions, to demands for justice survivors of sexual violence, to demands for safe spaces for queer students, to recognition of and access to facilities for trans students, and so on.
At this moment, we — as faculty — have a choice. We can choose to be dinosaurs and old-farts who mock students who are advocating for themselves, who are following the tradition of protest on college campuses for greater inclusion. Or, we can actually listen to what the students are saying, we can find ways to support them and navigate around (and dismantle) institutional constraints. Too few of us understand trauma to adequately decide how to support traumatized students; so, we should be figuring out how to support them rather than dismissing or mocking their concerns.
- “A Quick Lesson On What Trigger Warnings Actually Do” at HuffingtonPost
- “What, Why, When, Where, and How?: 5 Common Questions About Trigger Warnings Answered” at Everyday Feminism
- “Warning: This course may cause emotional distress” at the American Psychological Association
- “10 Things Psychologists Want You To Know About Trigger Warnings” at Buzzfeed
- “Hey, University of Chicago: I am an academic. I am a survivor. I use trigger warnings in my classes. Here’s why.” by Erika D. Pricelet
- “Here Are 6 Reasons Why Trigger Warnings Aren’t Bullshit” at The Stranger